Sunday, September 28, 2014

Using Religion as a Negative Characteristic

Due to my prospectus deadline looming, this week will have to be a short introduction to a topic that has been on my radar for some time. This trend that I have noticed, mainly in denialist rhetoric, uses religion as a negative characteristic that typifies history or science as "fantastic," "not to be trusted," or based solely on "belief" instead of fact.

Image retrieved from this site.
I am currently working on a paper that links the denialist strategies of Holocaust-denialists, climate-deniers, and creationists (evolution-deniers). This paper will explore the strategic arguments made by each group and the potential means to address them. Although it will not directly address this phenomenon, the frequent presence of "religion" as a negative characteristic has prompted my attention. I hope that this brief inquiry, which will be continued in another post or paper, will delve into these characteristics and this odd, recurrent rhetorical pattern.

One Holocaust-denial page ( argued that Holocaust-confirmers are wedded to their story of history with a religious fervor. The website argued:
"My guess is that people believe the hoax because they want to believe. It fills some deep emotional need—perhaps to overcome a sense of inferiority compared to the Germans, or to somehow join the dominant group in society. The exact answer is beyond any understanding of this writer—but it is an enormously important question nonetheless in the same way that one should try to understand why people believe in religion. Holocaust belief is a kind of new religion—as irrational and ridiculous as any other religion but enormously appealing. For those who have not totally lost their minds, the following reasons for rejecting the hoax may have meaning" (para. 8).
Belief in religion is characterized as "irrational and ridiculous" despite the author's many Christian symbols, crosses, and references to Christ's sacrifice for the good of the white race.

Image retrieved from this site.
Climate deniers are also quite often religious and base their opposition to environmental protection on Christian teachings. The Cornwall Alliance (CA) is a religiously motivated group that denies the importance of climate change and its consequences as distracting from God's true work. Dr. Calvin Beisner, founder of the CA wrote, “religion is the root of any culture, and environmentalism has become a full-fledged religion in its own right. It is the most comprehensive substitute in the world today for Christianity so far as worldview, theology, ethics, politics, economics, and science are concerned” (Beisner, 2013, p. 1). He described environmentalism, or a focus and care on the environment, as a religion, based not on science, but on faith.

I've written about the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) before regarding a conference paper. The paper focused on ICR's magazine, Acts & Facts, that presents research done in their institute that proves creationism. They advertise their magazine as a tool “to counter the lies of evolution” and include education as one of the three prongs of their mission (along with research and communication). ICR undermines evolutionary science as “conflicting with biblical Christianity” and “detractors” to the true worldview (“Creationist Worldview,” para. 4; 6). They publish research articles that support creationism and also interest pieces about political, social, and cultural issues. In an article about education, author Henry Morris  (1973) wrote, “One of the most amazing phenomena in the histoy of education is that a speculative philosophy based on no true scientific evidence could have been universally adopted and taught as scientific fact” (para. 1). He described evolution as a philosophy that worships that religion of naturalism and humanism. Evolution is “the established religion of the state” that has excluded competing voices because they fear the truth (Morris, 1973, para. 4). Evolution, often called "Darwinism," is a religion that worships Darwin as a deity that scientists follow blindly.

Image retrieved from this site.

The extreme irony here is that groups who deny history or science (such as Neo-Nazis, creationists, and climate-deniers) are often themselves deeply religious, namely Christian. What is the logic in using religion as a negative characteristic when one follows religion oneself? It seems hypocritical for religious groups to undermine their opponents by trying to paint them as religious. In one sense, this places both sides on an equal playing field, treated both as beliefs that should be respected. Another possibility is that by reducing the opposing side to religion, the deniers can claim scientific superiority. Though they may rely on religion in their own beliefs, many groups understand the persuasive and authoritative power of evidence, models, and rationality.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Danger and Opportunity in Speaking for/with Others

There are many issues that I feel compelled to address as a rhetorician and social agent of change (Klumpp and Hollihan argue). Engaging with these issues, however, requires reflexivity about my own status as a privileged, white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, female and how that type of person/body can speak for others. Can I speak for others? Perhaps literally, yes, I could use my platform on this blog and as an academic to speak for others. It wouldn't be well or with full knowledge, but I could. Thus, the better question would be should I speak for others?

On one hand, attention to these important issues of transgender rights, racial inequalities, gender equality, and equality more broadly should have as many advocates as possible. People of all description can be allies and amplify the voices and stories of those who can speak more genuinely about these problems.

Image retrieved from this site.
On the other hand, speaking for others complicates issues of voice, could serve to isolate the voices of others, and reifies a system in which certain voices are more valuable than other voices. In an academic exchange in a journal, Campbell and Biesecker addressed the issue of speaking for women in rhetorical history and how the "canon" of rhetoric that is studied systematically removes female voices. Though Campbell erred on the side of including as many voices as possible into the current canon, Biesecker was in favor of rejecting the canon as a system of tokenization.

The rhetoric of tokenism highlights certain voices that triumph against an oppressive system as evidence that the system is not oppressive. The lauded status of certain individuals (Cloud has an excellent article on Oprah as exemplar) is unique and worthy of note, and their success is linked to their individual qualities. If others simply embodied these same qualities, they could also rise above the system, meaning that change is unnecessary.

This is the token black character on South Park, literally named "Token." Retrieved from this site.
Part of the problem in speaking for others is this dynamic of visibility, voice, invisibility, and silence. To speak for others is to reify that certain voices are not being paid attention to, but it also silences their actual message in favor of a conduit. To remain silent, though, is to allow and passively participate in the maintenance of the status quo.

I am still working through these problems and try to keep them in mind in the work that I address and the comments that I make. I try to always be reflective and aware of the position from which I consume information and process opinions. For now, I err on the side of commenting from my limited position, especially when certain issues are prevalent and pressing.

One issue that has recently emerged, and one which I am reluctant to rehash considering the wishes of my colleagues, has been the Annenberg Innovation Lab Black Twitter project. I wish only to comment on this situation's similarities to the issues of authorship, voice, and who is allowed/should study others as a researcher. A summary of the incident can be read here and an excellent response by my colleague Dayna Chatman can be read here. This incident helped me reflect more on my status as a researcher and how academia as a whole can be more reflexive of how our personal situations affect our approaches to certain issues.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catcalling and Power: Hollaback at Violent Male Culture

Catcalling has been appearing frequently in article I've been reading, on social media, and in conversations with friends. I have already discussed more generally the problems that females face specifically on college campuses, but catcalling is a form of aggression that plagues all women. I use the term aggression purposefully and meaningfully as these catcalls are verbal, sexual assaults on females. These are, in many ways, hate crimes in that they are addressed and targeted towards a particular gender. I argue that these are violent, aggressive verbal attacks on females and are not addressed in order to be compliments or flattery. Any woman of all shapes and sizes in clothing from SoCal casual to Boston coats (I have seriously been catcalled walking down Boylston in my HUGE winter jacket) are catcalled. Like rape, catcalling is not about "flattering" or "complimenting" someone; it is about power, laying claim, objectifying, and reifying an order where men can and are allowed to "be men." The clip below is from a Fox News show where four clueless women and one man discuss how flattering and welcoming catcalling is.

The hosts argue "let men be men." This statement characterizes men as overly sexual, aggressive, and blameless for their actions. This attitude let's men off for perpetrating abusive, violent action towards women. The blame is shifted to the victims for not "taking a joke," their choice of outfit that incites a catcall, or walking in a certain area. Victim blaming is never something that should be encouraged or tolerated in society. Just like bullying or assault on college campuses, it is always the fault of the perpetrator, the person committing the crime and assault. It is never the fault of the victim. In the famous words of the recently passed Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, victims must always remember, "it's not your fault." The hosts of the show should be ashamed of themselves for laughing and tolerating the inane slow clap of their male counterpart. The female presence is not a show or performance for the adoration or approval of males.

Retrieved from this site.
I have been catcalled many times and the first thing that I have thought was not, "oh how nice," or "how flattering!" Instead, it immediately places me in a subject position where my presence is only meaningful in that is a display and object for the male gaze. In one instance, I had a man follow me off a bus in Los Angeles and onto the Metro, yelling at me and attempting to accompany me to my destination. I will probably never forget the fear I felt when I realized he was behind me as I stepped off the bus. My relief in getting out of the situation became sheer panic. He ran up next to me and said, "I'm not trying to scare you sweetie, I just want to marry you." Another time, I was grabbed from behind by a young male on a skateboard on the very street where I live. This catcall, which I tried to ignore, ended in physical assault and made me feel like an object to be squeezed, held, and owned by others. When I step on the street, I have no control over the actions of others, what they may call me, how they may judge me, but I will say that it is more rare than not to have an assault-free day. Louis Althusser noted that when a police officer yells, "Hey you!" at someone, they immediately construct a subject position for them to inhabit. This interpellation is done from a position of power that constructs for the other person an identity that they have no part in constructing. Any reaction is to that assignment position within what Althusser called an "ideological state apparatus" that reifies hierarchy.

Buzzfeed attempted to create a humorous interpretation of catcalling. The video shows "What men are really saying when catcalling." This video is important because it addresses the counter-argument that many people use to defend catcalling: that it is a legitimate way to approach a female. If someone is interested, why not simply call out to them and engage them in conversation? Well, as the video shows and as I fully agree, catcalling is not an invitation. There is no desired or appropriate response. The male simply wishes to undermine the female, assert power, and inflate their own egos. As one of the males in the video states, "I noticed you're confident, so I'm cutting you down to feel powerful." Another notes that he's not sure why he's calling because he wouldn't know what to do if the female responded. When I have tried to respond to catcallers, I am either called a bitch, frigid, or am assumed to already have a boyfriend. Because already being owned by a male is the only reason to call off an approach.

Playboy also recently released a chart that describes when it is appropriate to catcall a female. Though my initial reaction was, "why do you need a flowchart to define the word 'never'?" this chart is important because it incorporates the participation of the female. The only way for catcalling to be appropriate, via this chart, is with the consent and agreement of the female party. This approach considers females active agents instead of simply passive objects to be called upon.

Retrieved from this site.
Catcalling engages issues of hierarchy and ideology. In what situations do females catcall men? In what situations do females have the power to objectify and undermine men? Simply put, they never do. The structure of hierarchy implies that the minority or discriminated group never has the agency or power to discriminate themselves. Any action is performed within that hierarchy. My response to a catcaller is always framed with the male in the right and myself in the wrong. Althusser's police office constructs the situation and appropriates the actions of the passerby without a need for reaction. Because of their respective positions within the system, the act of addressing and calling upon someone places them in the position of vulnerability, object, and minority. Catcalling reifies a structure that says that men are always in a position of power over women.

Retrieved from this site. Stats are specific to Hollaback Boston.
A few organizations, such as Hollaback , are trying to end street harassment. Hollaback focuses on sharing the stories of females who have been harassed in a triple-pronged attempt to promote awareness of how frequent and widespread the issue is, to provide validation for females who have been verbally harassed, and to promote healing through collective storytelling. I hope that initiatives like this can help to make real and present the plight of harassment that females experience every day. We as a society need to move away from victim blaming, listen to the stories of those shamed and objectified, and acknowledge the societal guilt that we all share by allowing this culture to exist. Though I am not knowledeable enough to comment in more depth, I do want to use this post as an opportunity to amplify how these issues often specifically and disproportionately affect women of color and the transgender community.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Online Activist: Making Charity Cold as Ice

There have been many commentaries on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, hereafter IBC, including some by my colleagues at Annenberg. I have very mixed feelings about the challenge and they are quite scattered. I will attempt, then, to parse some of my more scholarly opinions on the matter in my overall criticism of the challenge as an event in narcissism and exploitation that has ultimately generated a lot of money for a great cause. In this sentence, I want it to be clear that the process by which these donations are raised is where my primary concern lies and not with the cause itself. Certainly, encouraging donations is a positive enterprise, but I am not completely deontological in that I feel that a critical look at the process and means by which these are obtained are necessary.

Retrieved from this site.
My first issue with the IBC is the notion of "challenge." There has been an increase of challenge and dare activities on the Internet where people are constantly trying to one-up each other. We had planking, for example, where people would try and lie supine on random objects, often in danger. The more dangerous or precarious the planking, the more valuable in terms of Internet clout. Then, came the video challenges by which people were dared to do something inherently dangerous, like jump off a bridge. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the deaths of a few people after drowning trying to meet the dare. Though meant as harmless fun (of which even my lovely siblings have participated in), these challenges raise important questions of safety and what activities the Internet are encouraging off-line. Others have been injured in so-called "cold water plunges" that are often media stunts to raise money for charities or certain causes. These challenges raise questions of agency and the choice of the "dared." When we are really talking about life and death, how can we not see challenge culture as a negative aspect of the Internet that encourages risky and dangerous behavior?

Planking on the edge of a building. Retrieved from this site.
These "I nominate X, X, and X" phrases remind me of the chain letters of the 90s where you had to forward these ridiculous stories (in Yahoo and Hotmail, typically) or someone would come kill you in the evening. What actually happens if you don't accept an IBC, cold water challenge, or forward a chain email? Absolutely nothing. The challenge culture simply takes your unwillingness to do a dare from middle school slumber parties to a global audience. In a word, it's childish. The maintenance of these challenges perpetuates the dangerous culture of one-upping and daring, although not specifically present in the IBC. What we communicate has essentially stayed the same, but how we communicate it has changed. Ong would see the evolving communication technologies as simply offering new forms that communication can take, such as the dare. The IBC has the countdown clock and the threat of non-compliance that email chains (and blackmail, by the way) have to motivate people to act. The dare takes the spirit of altruism out of the donations, because it is reduced to the act of one-upping others, blending in with the crowd, and passing the dare on to others.

My second issue is the notion that this particular charity is particularly worthy, or that I am forced to donate to this particular one. I think that donating to charity is definitely a worthwhile cause and one that the IBC has reminded me that I should do more of. But, why ALS? They have simply come up with this marketing campaign. They, like all charities, are not particularly worthy or more deserving than so many other of the great charities out there that one could donate to. Why should my choice in charity donation be limited because of a "dare" I receive on Facebook? Why shouldn't I donate to a charity that I care about? That I believe does good work? That I feel is not getting enough attention? Perhaps I have been personally affected by close family member having Alzheimer's or diabetes and wish to donate to them. Is this somehow less acceptable because I am not performing the dare made of me? Why should someone else decide where I give my money? This article brings up important concerns about what the money will be used for and the benefits of massive donations to a specific charity (especially one like ALS which focuses on research and impacts very few people).

Retrieved from this site.
My third issue is the performative aspect of the challenge that promotes narcissism and exhibitionism rather than a concern for the charity. Why should I have to dump water on my head to do a good deed? Not to mention the many concerns this has raised in California because of the drought. Why do I have to film it and share it with others? Why isn't donation a private act that doesn't need public display? Because it's not about my donation, it's about me. It's about my public performance of doing good work. Modern culture cannot do a good deed without getting recognized for it. We need public recognition of every A, every act of kindness, every charity. Dumping water is about including myself in the story of ALS and its success, about feeling good about my involvement. The IBC reminds me quite strongly of the "Fitch the Homeless" movement where people donated all of their Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless. On the surface, just like the IBC, this campaign did provide many donations of much-needing clothing for the homeless. But, this campaign leaves a similarly negative taste in my mouth because of the reasoning behind the actual donations. They were not out of the sake of the good deeds or that the homeless were in need, but that we were getting back at Abercrombie & Fitch CEO would made comments about his clothing being only for "cool kids." Yes, in response to this statement, let's donate all of the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to the most non-cool kids ever. As this article put it: "what [this campaign] ends up doing is using people experiencing homelessness as pawns to make a political statement." The IBC similarly exploits the narcissism and dare culture of the Internet to encourage donations. Is the end result a positive? Definitely. But should we condone these types of reasons to donate? Absolutely not.

Retrieved from this site.
Donations are not a matter of being dared or used as a way to spite others. Donations should be about caring, giving, appreciating others, working monetarily towards a cause that you believe in. If this is the new way that people donate, then it changes the dynamics of charity, and may shift our thinking so that we require dares and challenges to make a donation. We couldn't act independently or privately for the benefit of a cause, but would need to publicly present ourselves and declare that others must congratulate or copy us in order for the good deed to be meaningful.

I want to reiterate that I think the donations raised about the IBC are absolutely amazing. I never would have thought that reinvigorating the giving spirit (sort of) especially for my generation could be done so successfully (especially after the Kony 2012 disaster). I think that the impassioned speeches of my colleagues on Facebook have been well heard and I do not look down or condemn anyone for doing the IBC. I merely wish to raise questions (albeit rather passionately myself) about the purpose of these type of videos, what they are actually promoting, and the motivations behind the good deeds that make me skeptical of the lasting power of this campaign and others that may try to imitate it.

I will not participate in this if someone challenges me. I've decided that I don't want to perpetuate a culture that made my brother jump off of a bridge, take away people's agency in deciding to donate, or reducing the act of charity to an event in narcissism. I do think that donations are a positive act and this challenge has caused me to see that people don't donate enough. I may donate because of this, I may not. It may be to ALS, it may be to a different charity, or none at all. But, I will not make it a public spectacle or "dare" others to have the giving spirit or shame them into performing for a Facebook audience. Instead, I encourage everyone to see the larger message in the beauty of charity and reject the process by which this challenge is perpetuated.